The text for my first sermon as minister (given by the Lectionary) is from James. The verse that has captured my attention is 1:18: “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” (NIV). In particular the word “firstfruits” (aparchen in the Greek) is fascinating. This word refers quite specifically and exclusively to an act of sacrificial giving supportive of the Temple. There were strict rules in the OT about the tithing of agricultural produce (bikkurim in Hebrew) and the Greek word used here (which referred to similar practices in Greek temple religion) was used to translate them.
If one takes the “us” in James’ letter to refer to the Church (which I think one should) he is saying that God intends the Church itself as a sacrificial offering. This is a little confusing at first sight since the bikkurim/aparchen were offered at the Temple to support its work. If one imagined the Church to be the successor body to the Temple then it would be hard to see how James image could make sense. How could we offer the Church to itself to support its activities?
This perplexity can be relieved, I think, if one recalls that Christ himself is the new Temple, raised up after three days. The offering of the Church is to Jesus, not to itself. This reminds us that the image of the Church as the body of Christ, while useful, has its limits. Jesus, after the ascension, retains his bodily integrity (this is a point where it seems to me that Calvin is definitely correct as against Luther with its consequences for the understanding of the Eucharist).
There are two key reasons why I think this set of ideas, around the nature of the Church’s relationship to Christ and the continuity of this relationship with that of the Temple to the God of Israel, are important:
- it reminds us that the Church is not self-sufficient or even self-identical – it exists only insofar as it surrenders itself to the divine Son, whose reality exceeds and escapes it;
- it reminds us further that this paradoxical mode of being is continuous as well as discontinuous with that of Israel with the Temple at its centre.
The mode of sacrificial giving specific to first fruits is not a destruction or waste. Rather it is a dedication to a particular use, that of enabling the operation of the Temple, which functions as the point of contact between the transcendent God and the created order. This is also the core purpose of the Church (on this reading of this text). The Church enables Christ’s presence to us as the point of contact with God. This supports the definitive role of Word and Sacrament as the marks of the Church (an area of agreement between Luther and Calvin and therefore something I will take to be clearly and obviously correct).
The various other works of the Church, whether pastoral, evangelistic, charitable or social, are subsidiary to this core task of being the site of Christ’s presence in the Word preached and the Sacraments properly administered. One implication of this is that we shouldn’t worry too much about apparent failure in any of these areas so long as we faithfully carry out this commission.
We can’t properly appreciate any of this if we lose contact with the framework within which the New Testament writers articulate it, that of Second Temple Judaism, or if we forget the Jesus’ mission should be seen as the climax of the history of God’s dealings with Israel.
I’m not sure yet how to preach this in the context of the beginning of my pastoral relationship with the particular expression of the universal Church which is Brookmans Park URC, but I’m really excited about trying.